White Sox

South Side Bryce: Harper should be White Sox Top Target

If you have listened to General Manager Rick Hahn this off-season, you wouldn’t think the White Sox lost 100 games this season or that they haven’t had a winning campaign since 2012. You wouldn’t think that the White Sox are one of five organizations in Major League Baseball that has not given out a 100 million dollar contract and that Jose Abreu‘s 2013 $68 million dollar pact isn’t even particularly close. No, Rick Hahn is talking with the swagger that he has an ace in the hole, though not literally since the tragic Michael Kopech injury.

“No one should be surprised about seeing us involved with potential impact names,” Hahn said. “Given where we’re at right now in our rebuild, 2019 might not be the moment of greatest impact for all these players, we may be able to pick up some players via trade or free agency that align with what we’ve accumulated and make sense for us in the long term.”

“I’ve heard, Kenny’s heard, other people within the organization, Ricky, from numerous players about the excitement about what’s coming down the pipe here,” Hahn said. “I don’t think for any long-term commitment the deciding factor is going to be our ability to win immediately. With any major investment, it’s going to be a long-term commitment with a belief on both sides that this union is going to produce multiple championships over the long term.”

While it is rare that a 100 loss team would bandy about such a hefty financial investment into a high stakes and volatile marketplace, this team and this free agent class is conspicuously different. Enter the phenomenal infielder Manny Machado and the prestigious outfielder Bryce Harper. What is strikingly distinct about these players from previous years (and future free agent classes) is their age and track record. Machado and Harper are both freshly 26 years old and have combined to rack up 61.2 wins above replacement (WAR), 10 All-Star Game appearances, and multiple MVP votes, including Harper taking home the ultimate prize for a monster 2015 campaign.

Which prompts the all-important question, why would either be interested in joining the seemingly hapless White Sox? The first and most obvious answer is that the White Sox should be able to offer them a lot of cash. The Sox have the 29th lowest committed payroll in 2019 and judging from Hahn’s comments he is planning on changing that in a hurry. Money talks and Rick Hahn reportedly has ownership’s blessing to make it rain.

In addition to loads of payroll flexibility, the White Sox have reinforcements on the way to open a contention window soon. Looking at the FutureSox 2018 Midseason Rankings, you have to scroll all the way to #14 (Jake Burger) before you find a major league ETA of later than 2020. We aren’t talking about utility infielders or middle relief prospects of White Sox farms of old, there are plenty of potential stars in their own right. In August, MLB Pipeline ranked the system as the 3rd best in baseball, citing high-end talent and also noting they acquired two of the best college hitters in the 2018 draft with Nick Madrigal and Steele Walker.

The timing could not be better as the competition is floundering with the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals entering full scale rebuilds. The addition of the mediocre Minnesota Twins makes the AL Central MLB’s weakest division. The class of the Central is the perennially dominant Cleveland Indians, but according to a recent shocking report, they are looking to subtract from their veteran core due to payroll concerns.

As the stars are aligning for the White Sox to hand out a monster contract, the ultimate question now pivots to who? Jon Morosi of MLB Network floated that they were interested in both, which ignited a firestorm of hyperbole envisioning Harper AND Machado roaming Guarantee Rate Field. Taken at face value of the report, it makes perfect sense for the White Sox to pursue both players in hopes of landing one.

It was a bit shocking to some, however, that the focus was not primarily on infielder and  long sought after Manny Machado. Machado would be an immense upgrade and a decisive answer to the White Sox long and painful history of attempting to fill their void at third base. Not only does he bring the thunder with his bat, but he is rated as one of the best defensive third baseman in the game. Additionally, a quick look at the organization depth chart doesn’t supply an heir apparent at the hot corner unless the White Sox get creative with middle infield whiz Nick Madrigal or really believe in Jake Burger‘s defensive prowess and quick recovery from his Achilles injury.

Meanwhile the White Sox top tier farm system is fully stocked with projectable outfielders including wunderkind Eloy Jimenez, Cuban phenom Luis Robert, and rising prospects such as Luis Gonzalez, Blake Rutherford, and Luis Alexander Basabe. Manny Machado makes clear sense for the White Sox and fills an immediate need. Fans should be ecstatic if Rick Hahn manages to reel him in, but for my money, the clear top priority should be Bryce Harper.

Bryce Harper is the Better Offensive Player

Batting average aficionados be damned, Bryce Harper is a more impactful offensive player than Machado and it isn’t particularly close. For comparison’s sake, their careers have aligned nearly identically, with Harper appearing in 927 major league games while Machado has played in 926. Over the course of their respective careers, Harper has posted better offensive numbers in every offensive statistical category aside from doubles (211 to 183) and batting average (.282 to .279).

The most glaring way that Harper dwarfs Machado is in on base percentage, as the free swinging infielder has a career .335 OBP compared to Harper’s .388. Over the past four seasons, the sweet swinging lefty has been even more prolific, reaching base at a .410 clip. The White Sox OBP leader in 2018 among everyday players was Jose Abreu at .325, followed by Yoan Moncada at .315 and Yolmer Sanchez at .306. Help in this regard is likely sparse internally, as future lineup stalwarts Eloy Jimenez (6.1 % BB in AAA) and Nick Madrigal (4.7% BB in A+) are notoriously averse to taking free passes and you have to dig down to prospects such as Zack Collins (19% BB) or Luis Basabe (11.1% BB in AA) to find substantial walk rates among players that might be regular contributors. The 2018 White Sox had an on-base problem and it seems likely the 2020 contending White Sox team will have an on-base problem that Harper could help significantly.

The Defensive Gap is Largely a Mirage

While Harper laps Machado in terms of offensive calculations, Machado bested Harper in WAR last season and overall during the course of their career. What gives? The short answer is Machado grades out as an excellent third baseman while Harper was dinged as one of the worst outfielders in baseball last year after being roughly average his entire career. Jeff Sullivan of Fan Graphs took a deep dive into what the possible explanations could be, but even the most fervent apologist would admit that the defensive valuations have their limitations and faults. It’s unlikely that Harper went from a league average outfielder to suddenly among the worst in baseball considering he was healthy and appears to have not lost a step. It’s possible that his time manning center field effectively is numbered, but for the White Sox purposes, I have very little concern about Harper’s defense in a corner outfield spot.

Machado’s defense is a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from third base to when he moves to the captain’s chair at shortstop. After a career of excellence at third, his 2018 play with the Orioles and with the Dodgers was graded as the worst eligible shortstop in baseball. This wouldn’t be such an issue if he hasn’t publicly advocated for himself as a shortstop moving forward.

“This is where my heart is, where my heart has always been. That’s where I want to be. I moved over for a reason. I made a commitment to it, and I’m going to stick to it.”

Which begs the question, are the White Sox courting Manny Machado the third baseman or Manny Machado the shortshop? If it’s the shortstop, all of the excess value he’s had as a defender is now out the window in addition to being forced to find a new defensive home for a rapidly improving Tim Anderson. That uncertainty alone pushes the needle towards the clearly superior offensive force of Bryce Harper.

The Outfield Depth Would be a Fascinating Asset

The White Sox were faced with a tough decision when they were on the clock with the 4th overall pick in the 2018 draft. The best players on the board rumored to the Sox were Florida right-hander Brady Singer, 3B Jonathan India, and Oregon State’s middle infielder Nick Madrigal. With Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada seemingly entrenched as the White Sox double play combo for years to come, the Sox bucked conventional thinking and selected Madrigal.

The Machado/Harper conundrum is another opportunity for the White Sox to resist the knee-jerk reaction to seemingly fill a hole and instead create an area of depth and strength. With Harper in the fold in right field and Eloy Jimenez cementing left, the team would have the luxury of watching their center field prospects (Luis Robert, Luis Basabe, and Luis Gonzalez notably) battle it out. The losers, along with other top corner outfield prospects like highly regarded Blake Rutherford and Micker Adolfo, could either slide into a 4th outfielder/DH role or could serve as enticing trade bait. If he was so inclined, Rick Hahn could float a package to the outfield-needy Cincinnati Reds for stud 3B prospect Nick Senzel, or make a run at a frontline pitcher, or even acquire an elite closer. These are the luxuries afforded by a GM who is bold enough to strike for an exceptional opportunity.

Harper is the Face of the Franchise the White Sox Need

A case could be made for fiery Chris Sale or the stoic Paul Konerko, but the last time the White Sox truly had a superstar was Frank Thomas in his prime. It’s in the realm of possibility that the supremely talented prospects Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech, or even Luis Robert could reach that status someday, but those are large expectations to place upon their untested shoulders. Enter the sensational Bryce Harper, famous for post-game one-liners, losing his hat and helmet in dives and full spirits, and Home Run Derby theatrics. Harper is a bat-flipping natural showman whose immense personality would bring fans in droves and take pressure off of the waves of prospects who will be getting their first taste of the big leagues.

In contrast to Harper, Machado is no “Johnny Hustle” as he famously postulated during a controversy-filled post-season run with the Dodgers. Languishing on the dysfunctional Baltimore Orioles, is Manny Machado ready to be the leader of the young and up-and-coming White Sox?

The White Sox have the funds, the supporting cast, and the opportunity of a lifetime to land a superstar this off-season. Acquiring either player would be a coup of epic proportions the organization has never seen, but Bryce Harper should be the undisputed top target and a perfect fit. His signing would be Hahn’s masterpiece, his coup de grâce to the rebuild and a clear announcement to the baseball world that the White Sox have arrived and are a force to be reckoned with again.

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